We’ve started our descent to land our series on the Church. Let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far:
- The Church’s big mission is to manifest the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. That is, the wisdom of God to fulfill His plan to unite all things in Christ, which He has started to do in the Church. Thus, the Church’s vital union with Jesus Christ and unity amongst its members is crucial in fulfilling its mission.
- The Christian life is a life in community. When we understand and respond to the Gospel appropriately, we’ll consider ourselves not only as individuals, but individuals as members of the body of Christ.
- The Church gathers, and the Church scatters. When the Church gathers it gathers to worship God, to learn to observe all that Christ commands, to encourage one another. It does these things with corporate prayer, with reading and considering the Scriptures, with music/singing.
- When the Church is away from each other, it grows up into Jesus Christ. That is, it puts off the old man, the first Adam, and puts on the new Man, the second Adam, Jesus Christ. The most important and effective way we can minister to each other occurs while we’re away from each other… by each one of us growing up into Jesus Christ.
- Next, we discussed leadership in the Church. Specifically, we discussed the elders-pastors-overseers – the same person who fulfills three roles of setting an example, feeding the flock with the Word, watching the lives of those within the Church.
- And before Easter we had a sermon on baptism, this rite symbolizing that we’ve been taken out of final judgment and, by grace, have been placed into the life and fellowship of the Trinity. Jesus’ first command to those who have become His followers, after they’ve decided to follow Him. Baptism is how we identify ourselves with the church, indeed how the Holy Spirit places us into one Body – these are my people we signify by baptism. My new life is a life alive to God, united to Christ, among His people.
Chris followed through on that a couple of weeks ago.
Today we’re going to look at the second of two sacraments given to the Church, the Lord’s supper, sometimes called the Eucharist, which is the Greek word for “Thanksgiving” – so a meal when we give thanks to the Lord. Also sometimes called “Communion” – communion with the Lord and with one another.
And it’s on this aspect of “communion” I’d like to focus today. One of the sober instructions we’re given when we gather at the Lord’s Table is to discern the body – 1 Corinthians 11: 29. That is, to intentionally remember at this Table that we are not only in communion with Jesus Christ, but also with one another; to be very much conscious that we’re eating this meal together…that we’re one body in Jesus Christ. Among other things, the Lord’s Supper is intended for us to revisit our commitment to the church, to one another.
With that in mind, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 11, and start reading in v. 17:
1 Corinthians 11: 17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
Just a few verses earlier, Paul had commended the Corinthians church for holding fast to the apostolic tradition regarding the maintaining of gender distinctions, and not succumbing to societal pressure in that regard.
But even though he’d like to continue his positive tone, he finds fault with the church because of their gatherings.
In v. 17 he says that their gatherings are not for the better but for the worse. You’re worse off because you gathered.
I recall running a long-distance race in Bristol, Rhode Island, and I came to a table with water and parts of bananas and these little packet of gels that are supposed to slake your thirst. Well, I had never had one, so I took a chocolate flavored one and while I was running I tried it – nasty. Made a mess. And left me thirstier. That table that was intended to rejuvenate the runners – I’d been better off just running past.
What a shame if our church gatherings left people worse off than if they hadn’t attended.
So what were the Corinthians doing wrong, that made their meetings worse than pointless?
First of all, or fundamentally, 18 I hear there are divisions among you. Earlier in the letter we had heard of various schisms, “I am of Paul; I am of Peter, I am of Christ” – people aligning themselves under different teachers and, at least in their minds, setting them in opposition to each other.
But we learn later from the letter (including in this chapter), there were other dividing lines too – including socioeconomic divisions. In the gatherings the lines were emphasized between those who had money and didn’t; those who were slave and those who were freedmen. We could add today, public schoolers and home schoolers. CNN readers and Fox News readers. Those with a background of developed Christian belief and practices and instincts and those 1st generation believers who are breaking new ground. The old guard and the young upstarts. The hip and the fuddy-duddys.
V. 19 is a notoriously difficult verse to interpret. There are two options:
- While differences are to be expected and fine, divisiveness is evil… but a kind of necessary evil. Necessary because it will eventually mark off genuine believers from those who are – by their divisiveness – using the church to play the old power games…who are shams.
- Or, Paul is being ironic here – of course division is great, how else could we learn who the real elite are. There are the big dogs!
Either case: a church where the old selfishness shows up in party politics, power plays, distance, chill. An unhelpful gathering!
In finding fault with the Corinthian gatherings, Paul zeroes in on their method of eating the Lord’s supper.
Why does he make so much of their practice of this ordinance? Because the Lord’s supper represents and epitomizes great truth: that we are partakers of Christ and share together in His death and life. And this is true, no matter what else distinguishes us. And this shared participation in Christ goes deeper than all other differences.
Do you remember watching scenes in movies around the dinner table? I’ve read that authors of novels or scriptwriters of TV or movies have a real challenge when they portray people eating a meal. You can list who was there and how the table was set and the choice of food – but then how do you narrate the process of the meal if nothing significant happens? Joe cut into his steak and added a little mashed potatoes onto his fork and then put the fork into his mouth. He chewed eight times and swallowed…. You see, it get pretty tedious fast.
So why insert a scene with a meal if nothing happens during the meal except for people eating? BECAUSE NOTHING SO QUICKLY AND POWERFULLY PRESENTS THE SENSE OF CAMRADERIE, UNITY, HARMONY, TRUST, GOOD FEELING LIKE A MEAL. Meals are featured to express something about communion.
And thus Christ gave His people…a meal. Communion meal. A meal to portray and reinforce and ingest the truth that we are in Christ and He is in us and we are members one of another. At peace.
We should briefly note that there’s a difference between the way we eat the Lord’s supper now and how the church ate it. When we take Communion we’re not full afterward. But for the earliest Church, the Lord’s supper was an actual meal which included the ceremonial breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine.
Paul puts it crisply: when they eat the Lord’s supper, 20 it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. They’re missing the point of the Lord’s Supper by such a wide mark that they can’t even be said to be eating the Lord’s Supper. So just because you attend the Lord’s supper doesn’t mean anything good is happening.
And when you get the Lord’s supper wrong in this way, you’re getting Church wrong. The fact that the symbol of communion is broken implies a broken fellowship. Do the Lord’s Supper wrong and you’re doing church wrong. You’re not gathering as the Church, he might have said…
In what way are they missing the point of the Lord’s supper, and more generally the Church? 21 Each goes ahead with his own meal. There are those who can afford to arrive there early, find the best seats and begin eating.
And then there are slaves who can only arrive when their master releases them. And when they do arrive they find the bigshots reclining on couches in the prime spots, enjoying the last bit of a really splendid meal.
Rather than patiently waiting for the whole church to arrive and then eating the meal consciously together – each person is watching out for #1.
Impatience. Selfishness. No sense of one another.
In fact, one goes hungry/ another gets drunk – The Corinthians aren’t falling just a little short. Their practice is the exact opposite of what you should see among the church: unity, looking out for one another’s interests, In humility counting others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2: 3).
Rather than the church finding commonality in Jesus Christ, so much so that among the church many of the normal distinctions are set aside… There is in the Corinthian gatherings a bright line between categories of people.
22 What? Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?
It’s an interesting question Paul asks. If the Lord supper is really just about eating a meal, filling your belly, sating your appetites… do that at home. If the Supper is not done in faith, in understanding, there’s nothing in the eating and drinking itself.
You could push that thought further along: if you want to be selfish and impatient, fine. But that’s certainly not what church is about!
Or do you despise the church of God?
Wait, hold on Paul, who said anything about despising? We’re just eating a meal.
But, Paul says, when you’re too busy thinking about yourself to care to go below the surface of the meal and see what it represents, you’re being careless with it. When you treat the church as just another context to pursue your own appetites, your own interests, you’re trivializing it. When you don’t discern the body you’ll end up despising it.
And humiliate those who have nothing?
Rather than taking the trouble to honor those who are co-inheritors with Jesus, who are fellow members of the family of God, by your lack of effort you’re making some of them to feel as outsiders. You’re not important enough to wait for, to trouble myself for. I don’t see any advantage for myself in fellowshipping with you.
Ok, so that’s our passage. May I list a few summary points and make application:
- When God saves you, He places you among a people. It is among the people of God that you will work out your salvation. Interacting with them will be some of the way that God is saving you.
Not just that you’re by the people but you’re relating to them. Church is not just standing beside once a week, but living, growing relationships, where you know people’s names, you know their jobs, you are discovering over time what makes them tick, their personalities. Praying for them. Grieving and rejoicing alongside them. In this network of relationships, you’re growing up into a genuine human.
- In the life with God, there’s more to do than watching out for your own stuff – physical, emotional, spiritual.
I went to lunch with someone not part of this congregation; he’s not part of any church. I’m pretty sure he’s a Christian – he’s a Bible reader, he watches a lot of YouTube sermons. But ever since I’ve known him, he’s approached Christianity as simply a self-help tutorial. He’ll put search terms in YouTube: sermons on handling storms of life. Finding peace. Finding meaning.
His entire idea of Christianity is: God helps me live the life I want. Is it any wonder that he isn’t a part of a church? How would that help me?
At the root, that was the complaint of Paul against the Corinthians: they were approaching Church selfishly. What’s in this for me? At bottom, consumers.
If Church hurts me, I’ll leave. If Church is hard to relate to, then I’ll back off from them. I’m looking for a “Colin Church.”
In response to this mindset, recall the source of Lord’s supper meal – the Passover meal. Did you remember that?
The Passover commemorated the Exodus from Egypt – the LORD delivering Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt by His mighty hand. He overcame the might of Pharaoh and saved His people by means of bloodshed – killing the Egyptian firstborn by an avenging angel yet offering Israel the means of deliverance – a Passing Over – through substitutionary sacrifice. Seeing the blood of the substitutionary lamb over the doorframe the angel of death would pass over.
For 1.5 millennia, this Passover meal was eaten annually– a commemorative meal looking back… and yet also pointing ahead to another, greater EXODUS. Because though the people of God had been delivered from the Egyptians, over the centuries what became obvious is that they still suffered under a more fundamental enthrallment – they were slaves to sin.
In His violent, bloody death, Christ accomplished a new, greater EXODUS by which those who believe in Him are redeemed from the slavery of sin. Christ fulfilled the meaning and purpose of the Passover meal.
The Lord’s Supper picks up the celebratory note of the original Meal, but it’s a celebration of that Greater Redemption by which His power rescued us from the dark powers who enslaved us by our own sin. Through the substitutionary death of Christ we are freed from our guilt, from all that kept us from being fully human… reconciled to God – Hallelujah!
So…back to my point: If at the root of sin is selfishness, looking out for #1, being driven by our pleasures – does it make any sense to make this Lord’s supper commemorating our union with Christ who delivered us from Sin… just another way of thinking and living selfishly? If the ongoing symbol of our shared participation in Christ is a meal commemorating Christ rescuing us from sin, how can we treat our shared participation with each other so selfishly, so sinfully?
- The Lord’s supper portrays and magnifies objective and subjective realities: the reality of communion with God through Jesus and a reality of camaraderie with one another. That communion and camaraderie has been established by Jesus Christ, which makes it objective. But if by our actions or inaction we imply there’s nothing to that communion and camaraderie, there’s no point to the Lord’s supper.
- There is an objective unity among all in the Church of Jesus Christ, regardless of our socioeconomic status or other distinguishers.
We are all creatures of the Creator God. The rich and the poor meet together, the LORD is maker of them all. Proverbs 22:2
Each of us shares with the other the common predicament of guilt because of sin. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23
And we are all saved by the free grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. For all our sakes, God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21
It is vital that we hold these truths as more fundamental than whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we’re city-dwellers or suburbanites, whether we’re urbane or rubes, whether we’re fundamentalists or moderates, whether we’re well read or illiterate or something in-between. Whether we’re young or old.
- But it’s not enough for the unity to be objectively present; the Church should demonstrate this unity.
Philippians 4:2– I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of the fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Two facts about these women: 1) Open up the book of life and you’ll find both of their names listed. 2) They don’t like each other.
Ok, Paul, let it go. This is how life works. People don’t get along.
And Paul replies, no. I won’t let it rest. There should be visible unity. I’ll even grovel a little bit: I entreat. Just think, Good Women… Consider all you have in common. And then…. Well start by just saying ‘hello.’
Visible unity: Your relationships among the church should be more than simply an extension of the type of people you hang around outside of the church. There should be something atypical in your church relationships.
Maybe you’re a 20 something who normally, of course, hangs out with 20 somethings. Well, among the church you should be consciously reaching out to those who are senior saints and teenagers. You should be modeling the truth that in Jesus Christ we have a bond that goes underneath age.
There’s nothing wrong with finding like-minded friends among the church and enjoying fellowship with them. But you should broaden your fellowship among the church so that it extends to those who fall outside of your normal orbit.
Eating with your family is good and makes sense. But there’s a family-in-Christ too – take time to fellowship with them.
Here’s an idea: begin using the Lord’s supper Sundays over time to systematically reach out to all in the Church, including those whom you don’t naturally connect with.
Here’s another thought: when we have meals together in the basement, don’t eat with your spouse or your friends. Deliberately seek out those you don’t know or who are unlike you.
Brothers and sisters, the fellowship of the Church is supposed to be, upon second thought, a little surprising. Hmm, I’m surprised they’re eating together. What do they have in common?
We behave like the church when we are conscious of one another, and not just of ourselves. And we behave commendably when we discipline ourselves to be in fellowship with all of each other, particularly those with whom, outside of Christ, we probably wouldn’t associate.
- And at the Lord’s supper we should especially be conscious of this unity put into effect by the death of our Lord Jesus
What’s on our mind during the Lord’s supper? Part of the answer is: each other. These people are my people, not necessarily because they’re like me or even that I like them, but because we’re united in Jesus Christ. These people are my family, brothers and sisters. I might not have surges of emotion for them, but I’m with them through thick and thin. When they need help I’m there for them. Every one of them. I know their names.
Again, what unites us it not accidental. It’s not superficial. It’s our shared faith in Jesus Christ that we have by the same Spirit. It’s that we all follow the same Master, being baptized into His life and death.
If one of us passes himself off as a follower of Christ, but he/she is living in obvious, persistent, unrepentant sin, here is God’s word: Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one.1 Corinthians 5: 11
The Lord’s supper is meant to convey a deep truth: that we are partakers together in Christ. If by his life someone belies that truth, he is not to partake of that Supper. We’re not to eat with such a one. Do you see how significant this meal is? We are portraying something about Christ and each other while we eat together. Implied is that we who eat this meal together are accountable to each other, that we know each other, that we affirm that we’re together in Christ.
In other words, we can’t let this Supper become trivial, denuded of meaning. And we prevent that by taking Christ, obedience to Christ, and the Church seriously. From now on as we take the Lord’s supper, I’ll encourage those, and only those, who have been baptized and who are accountable members of a local Church to participate. Because the Lord’s supper conveys certain realities, and it’s up to us that we don’t turn it into some fiction.
Brothers and sisters, before the Lord’s supper:
- Ask yourself, am I a genuine follower of Christ? Have I been baptized, which is the first order to those who decide to follow Christ?
- Ask yourself, am I a member of Christ’s body? What am I contributing to the body?
- Am I out of sorts with any other members? In your mind, prepare to forgive him. If you can’t do that, make plans to contact him.
Brothers and sisters, during the Lord’s supper:
- Yes, thank the Lord for salvation from dark powers, from the guilt of sin. Confess your sin. Also, pray for this church as a Body. Pray for needy individuals sitting around you.
Brothers and sisters, after the Lord’s supper:
- Engage with the Church. Get to know people. Find out their names. Pray for them. Buy them some coffee.
Thank God for this meal and the realities it portrays. God, help us in our obedience, in the ordering of our loves, to reflect these realities.